Why labels can limit your job prospects

By Jim Bright

Do you like to be put in a box? Can others read you like a book? Are you never more happy than when you are being reduced to a social stereotype?

If you answered yes to all of the above, I have good news for you – there is a career development service out there who simply cannot wait to get started assisting you make your dreams come true.

Posh, Baby,  Scary, Ginger and Sporty: Did the labels help the Spice Girls?
Posh, Baby, Scary, Ginger and Sporty: Did the labels help the Spice Girls?

It seems the human weakness for placing things into artificial categories is alive and well in career development services.

Well before the Three Degrees sang When Will I See You Again, there was a Greek boy band called the Four Humours. However, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile was probably not going to be a chart topper, and hence we had Earth Wind and Fire with Boogie Wonderland, and then Baby, Ginger, Posh, Scary and Sporty with Wannabe.

Career wannabes will be lucky if they manage to avoid being placed into some category or other, and all of them are dubious. Left-brain right-brain anyone? Extrovert-introvert? Aries, Caesarian or Herpes?

While most of these are self-evidently masquerading as having scientific credibility (most do not), the most insidious are those that seem superficially plausible. The danger is, that if we give credence to the labels that others wish to apply, especially if these come from people we expect to trust, we may be unduly influenced in our decision-making relying on unreliable categories.

I came across one variant of these career taxonomies based on a very popular model. It divides jobs (and people) into one of six categories – people who like practical hands-on work (Realistic), those who like science (Investigative), artistic folks, the helpers of others (Social), influencers and sellers (Enterprising) and the clerks and counters (Conventional).

The labels are odd – why not call a scientist a scientist rather than Investigative? And why does the label Realistic refer to work that is done with your hands or body, but dancing on a stage (Artistic label) is not?


However, the problems really start when you look at the way these categories can be described. For instance, in one variant of this I saw, “I like to work alone” was placed squarely in the Artistic category. Do you see how arbitrary and value-laden this is? Try telling singers in a choir, dancers in troupe, or indeed actors in anything other than a one-woman show that they like to work alone.

While some writers may like to work alone, and the odd painter, most artists are unlikely to work alone, and indeed may have a strong drive to be part of a bigger ensemble. That’s without considering those who crave an audience.

Scientists, apparently, do not like rules. God help the colleagues in the rule-free laboratory. COVID-19 anyone? Again try telling a musician (Artistic) in an orchestra they don’t have to obey rules. The Enterprising types, we are told, are energetic and adventurous. Whereas all other workers are presumably lethargic and timid. What rot.

Clearly, there are some broad distinctions between the nature of different work. However, these are no more than broad generalisations, and there exists a large amount of diversity in any occupation, and significant overlap in terms of the skills and temperaments to be found in different roles.

In other words, these approaches represent a gross oversimplification of reality that encourage premature and inflexible narrowing down of occupational choices, and reinforce unhelpful stereotypes about people and work.

The answer to the Spice Girls Who Do You Think You Are cannot be reduced to a handful of categories, and those oversimplifying things, should stop right now.

Dr Jim Bright, FAPS, is director of evidence & impact at BECOME Education, an ed-tech start-up www.become.education. Email to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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